The best… New old destinations: Sri Lanka [Vanity Fair]

01/03/2014

Go with Ampersand Travel, ampersandtravel.com, run by brilliant Anglo-Sri Lankan James Jayasundera, says Nigel Tisdall

Why Now

Sri Lanka is a tuk-tuk-powered whirl of flamboyant temples and colonial bygones, thoughtfully spiced curries and biff-buff Ayurvedic massages, boisterous jungles and billboards promoting the joy of lemon-puff biscuits. Until recently it was primarily seen as a place to catch some winter sun. Now it’s blossoming into a year-round destination as its eastern shores, which have fine beaches and dry weather from May to September, gradually develop following the end of its civil war in 2009.

What to do

Most of the island’s eight World Heritage Sites lie inland, including Kandy, the former royal capital, where the Esala Perahera Festival in July or August is an exuberant high-point in the Buddhist year, with cacophonous processions featuring masked drummers and tuskers showered in lights. While there, spare a moment for the engrossing Garrison Cemetery, where the jumbled tombstones recall the hopes and tragedies of empire. Further north, the Cultural Triangle mixes the ruins of ancient cities and palaces with enormous Buddha statues – one of the best is Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa. On the south coast, Galle Fort is richly stocked with Dutch and British buildings, including a library that was once the Officers’ Mess for the British Ceylon Rifles. Want nature? A short drive south-east, Mirissa is a rewarding base for whale watching from November to April, or try your luck spotting leopards in Yala National Park.

Where to be

Set 4,000 feet up in the evergreen hills of Bogawantalawa, the four colonial-era tea planters’ bungalows run by Ceylon Tea Trails are the place to learn about the heavenly leaf, with expert-led plantation tours. You’ll never touch a teabag again.

Over the rainbow (de-luxe)

Amangalla originally opened in Galle in 1863 as the New Oriental Hotel, and is now a grande dame for our times.

Under the radar (de-less)

On the east coast, make for the new Beach House Pasikuda (beachhousecollection.com). In Galle, the seven-room Sun House is a former nutmeg merchant’s house turned hotel with two gardens and pool – just the place to pull up a sunbed and dip into Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle.

The fun bit

Meet the ever-smiling Sri Lankans on a train ride across the hills, travelling through the jungle on a breezy carriages where there are still seats reserved for clergy and everyone screams when you rattle through a tunnel. A second-class ticket for the two-and-a-half-hour trip from Hatton to Peradeniya costs about 50 pence. Food is a delightful, curry-led adventure. Major on fish and seafood, even in Colombo, where you can feast well at Ministry of Crab and Lagoon in the Cinnamon Grand Colombo.

Who with

Go with Ampersand Travel, ampersandtravel.com, run by brilliant Anglo-Sri Lankan James Jayasundera. British Airways flies from Gatwick to Colombo three times a week. 

Getting the flavour of... The slow train to Mandalay [The Week]

07/02/2014

After decades of stifling military rule, Burma is littered with remnants of its colonial past – few more “entrancing” than the Yangon to Mandalay railway, says Shawn Donnan in the FT.

After decades of stifling military rule, Burma is littered with remnants of its colonial past – few more “entrancing” than the Yangon to Mandalay railway, says Shawn Donnan in the FT. The overnight trip from the country’s largest city to its second city takes 15 hours, in clapped-out carriages that are frequently derailed (the plane, by contrast, takes 90 minutes). But the ride is “magnificent”, with views little changed since George Orwell’s days as a policeman here in the 1920s. Children cheer as you pass through the villages, white cranes watch from rice paddies, and there are gilded pagodas galore. In the dining car there’s one chef, frying sparrows in a wok. Go now, before the country’s modernising reforms sweep it away. Amperand (020-7819 9770, www.ampersandtravel.com) can tailor-make a 12-day Burma trip from £2,595pp, incl. flights and train.

Bhutan – The Tigers Nest Monastery [Eat.Travel.Live.]

24/02/2014

Clinging to the cliffs over 3000 metres above the ParoValley in Bhutan, the breath taking Taktsang Palphug monastery is one of the most spectacular sites in the world.

Clinging to the cliffs over 3000 metres above the ParoValley in Bhutan, the breath taking Taktsang Palphug monastery is one of the most spectacular sites in the world.

The Buddhist monastery consists of 4 temples and 8 caves, accessed through the forest from the valley below. Pilgrims walk along paths strewn with colourful prayer flags and enjoy spectacular views of the valley and Tigers Nest Monastery. The walk up to the monastery can take up to 3 hours. The final stretch leads down and back up a narrow winding staircase, hugging the steep slopes and over a  waterfall into the magnificent monastery. Cameras are banned in this sacred place so get your pictures done outside and soak up every detail once inside. The dramatic location of this stunning site means the clouds can roll down and shroud the monastery making it look even more isolated and eerie.

Ampersand Travel organises tailor-made tours to Bhutan – for more information visit ampersandtravel.com

Maverick hotels with community at the core [FT How to Spend It]

04/01/2014

Nihiwatu Lodge, Sumba Island, Indonesia...

A clutch of unconventional hoteliers is turning the paradigm of the independent hotel on its head. Sophy Roberts reports

In this era of greenwash, what is true of all these mavericks is how easy they are to believe. There’s a frank integrity to their endeavours, because they declare the good and the bad, while more often than not investing their private wealth in the hope that their vision will not only be financially sustainable, but will above all spread ideas to bring wider benefits to others. I experience this agenda in its more conspicuous form on my first night at Nihiwatu, a small luxury resort on the island of Sumba, an hour’s flight from Bali.

I’m with my family drinking mojitos, our feet in the sand, listening to stories told by one of the Australian water-sports instructors as the sun sets. Among the crowd is a family from Silicon Valley on a two-year sabbatical. The mood is light, happy. Above the conversation I can hear The Wave – the famous surf break that initially lured Nihiwatu’s co-creators, Claude and Petra Graves, to set up in this remote spot. That was in 1988. Twenty-six years later and Claude is instructing the yoga teacher, Ka’ale, to play the film created by The Sumba Foundation, the resort’s philanthropic initiative. The bar chat settles and soon runs to silence. The video, lasting no more than 10 minutes, gives the numbers on child mortality, illiteracy and such like. It tells us we are guests of these people – some of the poorest in Indonesia – and what the foundation, in large part funded by guests of the resort, needs to do to improve their lives. The footage pulls no punches, the laughter replaced with a different tone that is carried through to the conversation at dinner.

Nihiwatu, currently being renovated with new villas and pavilions for an April reopening, knows the risk they’re taking by being so upfront. It’s like showing a video of starving Africans on Christmas morning. But Graves also knows it’s a risk that pays off: so far guests have contributed 90 per cent of the total $5.2 million raised by the foundation. Indeed, ask Graves and he’ll tell you the luxury bubble has no place in our society any more, that guests aren’t afraid of confronting the world’s tough realities, even on holiday. Rather, they embrace it – and put their hands in their pockets.

A few days later, I visit a local market with Dato, Nihiwatu’s Sumbanese guide, before going on to see some of the villages where the foundation is working. I bump into the mother from Silicon Valley and her young daughter, also with a guide from Nihiwatu. I’d already learnt how she and her family were spending much of their sabbatical hopping between Amanresorts and the like. Now I was seeing a different side to their travels. “How could I not come?” she says. When I relate this story to Chris Burch – the American retail magnate who recently bought Nihiwatu, working alongside owner partner James McBride – he describes being at his 50th birthday in Manhattan with all the right people, the right canapés, in the right perfectly decorated penthouse. And how extraordinarily lonely it made him feel, despite his successes. Then he came on holiday to Indonesia. “I had no interest in buying a hotel,” says Burch. “It just sort of happened. Nihiwatu is not a project to make money. It is beyond money.” Thus one maverick hotelier begets another maverick hotelier; and perhaps the next run of influencers will follow.

Sophy Roberts travelled as a guest of Ampersand Travel to Nihiwatu Luxury Retreat. Ampersand Travel, 020-7819 9770; www.ampersandtravel.com.

Eastern Eats: Vietnam [Gourmet Traveller]

01/01/2014

Do you know your pho from your cao lao? If so, Ampersand’s (www.ampersandtravel.com) food lover’s tour of Vietnam might just be for you. It’s a comprehensive 12-day discovery of Vietnam’s world-renowned food scene, explored by travelling north to south from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) via the ancient port and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An and the hill station of Dalat. A highlight is a street food tour of Hanoi led by local expert Mr Vu Long, head of the Hanoi Gastronomy Club. This fully escorted private tour costs from £2,830pp, with flights, accommodation, transfers and excursions. 

50 Things You Should Do Before You Die [The Times Magazine]

11/01/2014

Never mind the Taj Mahal or Grand Canyon – try diving with whale sharks or stargazing in Utah instead. Travel experts tell Lisa Grainger what’s on their bucket lists.

Never mind the Taj Mahal or Grand Canyon – try diving with whale sharks or stargazing in Utah instead. Travel experts tell Lisa Grainger what’s on their bucket lists.

Celebrate with monks in Bhutan

In April, during the Paro Tsechu festival, thousands of devotees flock to the Paro Dzong fortress for five days of celebrations, which culminate in a huge appliqué picture of Buddha being unfurled at dawn. Highlights include festival dances and hikes during the day and nights in quaint mountain inns. The festival package starts at £2,795 per person including flights, hotels and guided tours. www.ampersandtravel.com

The India Focus [Sunday Times Travel Magazine]

01/01/2014

If you’d rather focus on filling your stomach than your camera’s memory card, try Ampersand Travel’s new foodie tour of India. In Kolkata, you’ll dine out on the world’s best street food – jhal muri, a spicy, crispy rice dish served in a paper cone, while in Hyderabad, try saffron- and coriander-loaded biryanis. The trip is led by a food historian, so she’ll tell you a bit about your dinner as you wolf it down, and she cares about sites too – you’ll visit the Golden Temple of Amritsar and Gandhi’s home in Ahmedabad between snacks. Book now for the first January departure: the 13-day tour costs £5,860pp, including Heathrow’s flights, transfers and meals (ampersandtravel.com)

50 Best Adventure Holidays [The Sunday Times]

08/02/2014

Zip Over India

Zip Over India

As part of Ampersand’s Rajasthan Desert Tour, you can zip-wire over the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort near Jodhpur. This fort was built in the 17th century and is more than 400 ft high; speeding along any of the six zip-wire routes gives spectacular views of the fort’s ruins beneath your feet and of Jodhpur in the distance. Other highlights include a desert camp and a camel ride into the dunes.

Details: Thirteen days costs from £3,515pp B&B, including flights, guides and the zip-wire (020-7819 9770, ampersandtravel.com).



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